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Classical Journal On-Line <[log in to unmask]>
Mon, 16 Jun 2008 11:26:39 -0500
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Ceremony and Power: Performing Politics in Rome between Republic and 
Empire. By GEOFFREY S. SUMI. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 
2005. Pp. 360 + xii. Cloth, $75.00. ISBN 0–472–11517–0.

Order this text for $75.00 from Amazon.com using this link and 
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A CJ Online Exclusive 2008.06.02

This study is concerned with “the relationship between political power and 
public ceremonial in the Roman Republic,” with particular focus on the 
months following Caesar’s assassination. Sumi (S.) focuses on public 
ceremonies “at which the elite and the governed came into contact, where 
political power was on display”: contiones, quaestiones, comitia, ludi, 
munera, festivals, funerals and triumphs (p. 1). Most political activity 
occurred in the open air in full view of the Roman people—in public, in 
other words—where the activities of aristocrats were monitored, questioned 
and/or approved of (p. 2). S. stresses that “the will of the people … was 
part of the political consciousness of Roman aristocrats … Roman 
aristocrats prided themselves on how the people responded to them” (p. 5). 
The thesis is that these ceremonies came to serve as venues for political 
discourse and helped shape the political process, and that under Augustus 
these public performances were transformed into the court ceremony of the 
principate. The nine chapters trace public ceremonial from the dictatorship 
of Caesar to the death of Augustus.

Chapter 1 (“Consensus and conflict: a typology of Roman Republican 
ceremonial”) begins by enumerating and describing the kinds of events that 
are the focus of S.’s study and their historical development. Public 
ceremonial was political action, but it is “overly simplistic to view such 
events as merely displays of aristocratic power” (p. 20) as the people 
could influence the course of a debate at a contio or the procedure at a 
trial (and an aristocrat’s presence in the theatre also exposed him to 
insults from actors and audience members, p. 28). S.’s discussion of the 
aristocratic funeral is particularly fascinating (pp. 41–6).

Chapter 2 (“Dictator perpetuo: public ceremonial during Caesar’s 
dictatorship”) identifies one of the principal questions in forthcoming 
chapters as how changing topography affected the ceremonies that occurred 
[in the Forum Romanum] and “to what extent the new topography of the Forum 
evoked the memory of Caesar and his dictatorship or the traditional 
political procedures of the republic” (pp. 53–4). S. focuses on five themes 
(enough for a volume in itself): how Caesar chose to celebrate his 
victories in civil war; his rivalry with his predecessors; the global reach 
of his victories and games; his relationship to the urban plebs; and his 
relationship to the nobility.

Chapter 3 (“Standing in Caesar’s shadow: the Ides of March and the 
performance of public oratory”) argues that virtually every festival, 
triumph, law or speech contained “an overt or oblique reference to Caesar’s 
memory” (p. 74; the next five chapters discuss and analyze the public 
ceremonies following his assassination). This chapter concerns the 
contiones of the Caesarians and the conspirators, although S. also treats 
topics such as the external appearance of the conspirators at their contio 
immediately following Caesar’s murder. Thus Antony was in toga and latus 
clavus, but underneath he had chain mail, a “visible demonstration of 
personal peril” (p. 91).

In Chapter 4 (“Caesar ex machina: ceremony and Caesar’s memory”), S. 
discusses how political power was linked to the posthumous honors awarded 
Caesar and to the ceremonies in which his memory was celebrated (p. 97), 
and gives a detailed description of Caesar’s funeral (pp. 100–12), 
explicating how elements were added or modified to make it even more 
theatrical and spectacular. Chapter 5 covers the arrival of Octavian and 
the ascendancy of Antonius. Chapter 6 is an interesting treatment of 
politics and public entertainment in July 44 BC; the games were designed as 
political communication (p. 142). “The memory of Caesar remained at the 
heart of the politics of this period,” as Octavian wished to honor Caesar’s 
memory and the conspirators to remind the people of the ideals of the 
republic (p. 143).

Chapter 7 (“Rivalry and reconciliation: ceremony and politics from autumn 
44 to the formation of the Second Triumvirate”) looks at Octavian’s return 
to Rome, a rich symbolic route which took him by the path of a triumphator 
(p. 162). S. discusses how Octavian continued to exploit the memory of 
Caesar to his own advantage (p. 179).

Chapter 8 (“The performance of politics in the triumviral period: 
opposition and consolidation”) is extremely interesting—I would say the 
best in the book. Some of S.’s illuminating observations include how the 
contio of women in 43 BCE (with its speaker Hortensia) undermined what the 
triumvirs had hoped to achieve, “in particular rebuking the idea that they 
had produced civic harmony” (p. 191); how the unfinished nature of Caesar’s 
building projects, the moving of the Rostra and the construction of a new 
senate house, underscored the instability of the regime just formed (p. 
192); and how Agrippa’s free barbers for the people may have been designed 
to encourage them to “adopt an appearance that was consistent with an 
atmosphere of celebration” (p. 209). S. also looks in fascinating detail at 
two obsolete ceremonies, the process of declaring war via the Fetial 
ceremony (pp. 210–13) and the closing of the doors of the Temple of Janus 
(pp. 213–14), and postulates that Octavian actually invented them for his 
own purposes.

In Chapter 9 (“The princeps as performer: creating court ceremony”), S. 
argues that traditional Republican institutions, through which the people 
had long expressed their will and exercised their power, were reshaped to 
form one element of the court ceremony of the principate (pp. 220–1), and 
were used by Augustus to celebrate his family and retell his own history. 
The changing topography of the city (p. 221) and legislative assemblies 
under Augustus are covered (pp. 234–7), as are triumphs and their rarity 
under Augustus (pp. 247–50). Augustus at his death acknowledged that his 
actions were highly performative: “self-conscious, represented actions that 
took place in the gaze of the Roman people” (p. 220).

S’s purpose is to examine public ceremonial against a backdrop of political 
developments. “This approach has enabled us to see how such ceremonies 
reflected, advanced, or hindered the struggles for power that arose after 
Caesar’s assassination” (p. 186). Has he succeeded? There is much here for 
the historian, but while I understand that this is a period for which we 
have a great deal of detailed information, and it is consequently difficult 
to study, there is in general too much re-hashing of the basic historical 
outline, and much inessential detail, to the extent that often the thesis 
of the book is lost (e.g., pp. 86, 118–20, 121). Visuality in antiquity is 
a deservedly expanding field—but here any discussion of it is almost an 
aside to what is in effect an historical work. One way in which this might 
have been avoided is to have proceeded thematically, rather than 
chronologically, allowing much extraneous historical material to be weeded 
A second problem is that S. early on draws a distinction between those who 
perform (aristocrats) and those who view (the masses; e.g., p. 7). This is 
too harsh a dichotomy; as S. himself notes, those viewing could turn the 
tables on those performing, taking over Caesar’s funeral, for instance. But 
what of the other aristocrats, surely present at such ceremonies, who 
looked on without speaking? Are they part of the “viewing” masses or the 
“performing” aristocrats? To separate the two groups this harshly reminds 
one of John Berger’s or Laura Mulvey’s now dated claim that the “viewer” of 
a woman is necessarily, even eternally male. Visuality is more complex than 
this, for surely aristocrats and masses, however they were arranged in the 
Forum, were both spectacle and spectators.

University of Western Ontario

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